Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Publish and be damned famous

With the ever-growing storm surrounding the current economic crisis, the debate has exposed the extent to which the banking industry has effortlessly achieved basket case status. It's difficult to recall the breast-beating that greeted Nick Leeson's downfall all those years ago; at the time we were assured that Leeson was a rogue trader, a claim that he hotly denied, claiming that the entire banking world was shot through with greed and insane risk taking. How right he proved to be!

It's so easy to hate banks, though. Even my previously fair and friendly local Solbank has been eaten alive by its parent company, Banco Sabadell and has been transformed into a mean, money-making machine that has, over the past six months, gobbled up 50 per cent (yes, you did read that correctly!) of the money that entered my account, including the entirety of a 100 quid cheque that my godmother sent me for my 50th. - and a happy birthday to you, you miserable, money-grabbing bastards!

Yet however tempting it might be to view banking as the only industry that has so conclusively sold its heart and soul to the devil, it is far from being the sole offender. Over the past, painful decade I have witnessed the deterioration of the publishing industry from a refreshingly old-fashioned, honourable club to a rapacious sausage factory with all the artistic judgement of Simon Cowell.

Firstly, I am aware that nobody who has the arrogance to produce a novel has the right to assume that it will be published; I'm sure that for every 10 authors manqué who claim to have a book in them, there are nine who would be best advised not to let it out. I remember once reading a guide to aspirant screenwriters in which the author claimed that possibly less than 10 per cent of screenplays submitted are correctly formatted. Some bids for movie immortality are no more than poorly conceived pitches (“guy goes back-packing in Thailand and meets a bunch of deadbeats from Leith - it's The Beach meets Trainspotting”) scrawled on paper napkins. One can only imagine the types of horrors dumped daily on the desks of Britain's book editors, so I sympathise.

However, the face of publishing today does make me wonder whether the aspirant writer will ever have a decent chance of securing even a two-book deal. Despite rave reviews from independent readers, my writing partner (himself a previously published writer and former book editor) and I have completely and utterly failed to find a home for our second thriller. While I understand the basic rules that govern this genre (find some specific locale in which to set it and introduce at least one character who can be reprised in future novels) and my writing partner is a genius when it comes to plotting and pacing – as a former editor he's had years of experience – we have not had as much as a nibble.

Despite the help of a London-based agent with our quest to secure some interest from a major publishing house, we didn't have any serious bidders. This left us with two options; try one of the many small publishers in the hope that once our thriller was available on Amazon, it might attract enough interest to draw in one of the majors, or sell some aspects of the novel to an interested fellow author for a tiny fraction of what we could have earned for the whole and cannibalise what's left for a treatment that might be picked up by a TV or film production company. We've opted for the latter, a pretty devastating return on what amounted to several years of painstaking work.

While I was engaged in the fruitless quest for a publisher I received some advice from a contact who had worked for Penguin for years, reminding me that many authors only see daylight after completing their fourth or fifth novel. She suggested, therefore, that I shouldn't lose heart, but continue to write and perfect my technique. Fair comment, I feel, if it wasn't for the type of fast-tracking that now defines the British publishing industry.

In the past few weeks I have heard of two celebrities, namely Fern Britton and Colleen Nolan, who have actually been APPROACHED by publishers and asked whether they'd ever considered writing a novel? As the old song says, nice work if you can get it! No financial worries for these two authors; fat advances upfront and dedicated editors to mother them through the unpleasant business of plotting, pacing and planning. With this type of assistance on tap, I daresay my tabby cat could probably stump up a half-decent novel.

Once printed, will these two doyennes of daytime TV actually shift enough copies of their respective pot-boilers to cover the publisher's considerable costs? Probably not. Some celeb books have been successful, such as the ghostwritten offerings of Katie Price and Peter Kay's memoirs, but there is no more guarantee of a celebrity name netting hot sales than any properly promoted novelist.

So the unread and unloved piles of manuscripts continue to pile up on editors' desks. With an agent on board my writing partner and I were relatively lucky to have a foot in the door; if you're a first-time or unpublished writer you will be unsurprised to hear that you have virtually no chance at all. These days most major publishers have a “no unsolicited manuscripts” policy, a phrase which can perhaps be better translated as “don't bother us, we're too busy schmoozing at the Groucho Club”.

Still, that's contemporary Britain for you – celebrity mad. It's even spread to the world of science; as probably the highest IQ currently on TV, Professor Brian Cox looks set to take up Patrick Moore's mantle. He has an unfeasibly large haul of postgraduate degrees, has worked at CERN, can explain the concept of particle physics in a way that even someone as mentally concussed by the physics stupid stick as I can understand some of it, but the one aspect of poor Professor Cox's life that nobody can forget about is his previous pop career. So it's not, “Professor Brian Cox, particle physicist”, it's “Professor Brian Cox who used to be part of nineties pop act, D-Ream.”

Still, as they say, things can only get better.


  1. When wallowing in literary self-doubt just think of Jeffrey Archer as a shining example of how far one can go on an empty tank of literary ability.

  2. Too true about Mr. Archer, Gwil! I hear that he's smart enough to arm himself with a brilliant editor, so in the old days he could just offload an idea of the plot and the editor would do the rest. Apparently his prison diaries are superb, but whether he wrote those himself or not I have no idea!!!